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AC Executive Director Tess Davis Condemns Museums Displaying Relics without Provenance in LA Times Article

March 26, 2021

While working on his doctorate at Burapha University in Thailand, archaeologist Tanongsak Hanwong encountered a surplus of evidence that two massive stone lintels possessed by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco were rightfully the property of Thailand, journalist Jennifer Lu reported in a March 26 article for the Los Angeles Times.

Beginning in 2016, Tanongsak fought for the repatriation of these lintels and other stolen Thai relics with an online campaign, which drew the attention of Thailand’s government.

Thai officials eventually joined with Tanongsak in 2017 to organize a formal repatriation committee, which discovered that the lintels had almost certainly been unlawfully gouged out of two of Thailand’s protected temples and smuggled abroad sometime after 1959. By the late 1960’s, they had both been purchased by Fifth International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage and installed in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco—all without any evidence of legal export.

It is important to note that this negligence is not limited to this one case, collector, or museum,  stressed AC Executive Director Tess Davis, whom Lu interviewed for the story. According to Davis, it is an industry-wide problem.

“The next time you go into a museum, see how many antiquities are hacked off at the feet or the head, how few can be pinpointed to a specific location,” Davis told Lu. “In what world, other than the art world, is it so acceptable to buy stolen goods?”

While Brundage died in 1975, existing documentation and photo comparisons offered enough evidence to compel Thai officials to reach out to the U.S. government.

After spending three years fighting repatriation efforts, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco promised in February that it would return the lintels to Thailand. As of March 26, the institution had one more vote to hold before it could complete the deaccessioning process and transfer the lintels to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s not often that we have an opportunity, as individuals or institutions, to right some of history’s wrongs,” Davis told Lu. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Upon receiving the lintels, Thailand plans to exhibit them at the Bangkok National Museum for several months. Their destination thereafter has yet to be determined, but according to Tanongsak, their presence in Thailand will enhance understanding of Khmer culture.